In Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' 44-year history, there have been four productions each of "Oklahoma!" and "The Music Man." The classics "West Side Story," "Guys and Dolls" and "My Fair Lady" have each made the main stage three times. Even less-familiar titles such as "A Flea in Her Ear" and "Me and My Girl" have made it twice. Somehow, though, Chanhassen has never mounted "Bye Bye Birdie," that staple of high school and community theater productions.

The 1960 Broadway production was nominated for eight Tonys and won four (including best musical); it spawned a 1963 musical that launched Ann-Margret's career, and it includes simple, catchy but enduring songs ("Put on a Happy Face").

"I can't remember us ever talking about it," said Gary Gisselman, Chanhassen's founding artistic director. "It's not that we didn't like it; it just didn't come up in our conversations."

Michael Brindisi, who directs the production that opened this weekend, said that the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical had been on his list for a long time but that the dinner theater's previous owners never said yes.

"It didn't have any track record for us," Brindisi said, "because we'd never done it before."

Try to work your way out of that Catch-22.

Music director Andrew Cooke and a Chanhassen board member both brought up the title about a year ago, and this time Brindisi -- who is now president of the dinner theater in addition to serving as artistic director -- decided that it was time to debut a musical that's been around for 52 years.

Influenced by early rock

"Birdie" was the first musical to stick its toe -- ever so cautiously -- into the emerging rock 'n' roll phenomenon of the late 1950s. The title character's name, Conrad Birdie, is a play on Conway Twitty -- who was a rocker before he went country.

The plot is borrowed from Elvis Presley's entry into the U.S. Army. Before Conrad reports for induction, he selects a girl from Middle America to receive his "One Last Kiss live on "The Ed Sullivan Show." For those of you under the age of 40, Sullivan was ... never mind, look him up on YouTube.

But Conrad's plot line, which drives the first act, is set up in Michael Stewart's book as a device for the main story -- which is the hot-and-cold romance of Albert Peterson and Rosie Alvarez. Albert is Conrad's manager and Rosie is the office secretary. That makes "Birdie" an old-school book musical full of poppy show tunes and cartoonish characters.

"It is from that golden age of musical comedy," Brindisi said. "It's like a Neil Simon script with old jokes and one-liners. You can tell when the songs are coming when you read the script."

Whose show is it?

For Rosie and Albert, Brindisi cast Chanhassen veterans Ann Michels and Michael Gruber. Michels says "Birdie" really does hark back to old-fashioned values. Take Albert, for example. At the play's outset, he's managing the hottest rock 'n' roll star on the planet. That might rank as a dream come true for some ambitious hotshot today. But Albert ends up ditching the business and -- at Rosie's urging -- settling down in a small Iowa town as an English teacher.

"He understands what's important, and it's not hustling for the next big thing," Michels said. "How do you keep things simple and meaningful?"

Michels has never performed in "Birdie" and she's more familiar with the movie than the stage version. She's not alone. The film's producers juiced up the role of Kim MacAfee for Ann-Margret. And they added an eponymous theme song to play over the credits.

"We've had audiences at previews expecting more Birdie," said Brindisi.

Interestingly, the title character has a few big songs but only a small bit of dialogue.

Regardless of who drives the plot, or which romance really matters, "Birdie" always has ridden the frothy score by Strouse and Adams. "Got a Lot of Livin' to Do," "One Last Kiss" and "Kids" showed up in cultural references for many years. The tune of "Happy Face" still turns up in commercials.

"Birdie" marks the fifth Chanhassen premiere in the past six shows. "Xanadu" and "Hairspray" were the two most recent. However, after "Birdie" closes on March 30, it's back to the tried and true. "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" will become the all-time leader with its fifth production.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299